Friday, May 1, 2009

"The design of digital tools for scholarship is an intellectual responsibility, not a technical task."

Skg sent me this link to a very interesting article by Johanna Drucker. Drucker points out that even though humanities research depends on libraries and archives, faculty tend to take a bizarrely hands-off attitude toward the development of the library. Even as they are aware that print culture has changed and continues to change, they believe that librarians and other information specialists will take care of it -- and take care of it in a way that will suit scholars' needs.
The design of new environments for performing scholarly work cannot be left to the technical staff and to library professionals. The library is a crucial partner in planning and envisioning the future of preserving, using, even creating scholarly resources. So are the technology professionals. But in an analogy with building construction, they are the architects and the contractors. The creation of archives, analytic tools, and statistical analyses of aggregate data in the humanities (and in some other scholarly fields) requires the combined expertise of technical, professional, and scholarly personnel.
Just as problematic is the hand-waving approach so often taken toward technology: technology is the future; technology is magical; technology will fix things. It's as if the issue were whether to be pro-technology or anti-technology. But, as Drucker observes, different technologies do different things in different ways. The question is how will we use which technologies, and to what ends?

Robin G. Schulze makes a similar argument about textual editing in her bluntly titled essay "How Not to Edit: The Case of Marianne Moore" [Muse]. On one level, the article is a detailed critique of Grace Schulman's edition of Moore's poems (Viking, 2003). The edition has some virtues, but logic and accuracy are not among them. But Schulze is also sounding the alarm about the assumption that editing will take care of itself, that it is a merely technical task to be farmed out to publishing houses (even commercial houses like Penguin/Viking) rather than a scholarly intellectual task. Such an attitude has real practical consequences for literary criticism and teaching.
Scholars ... need to speak out and up on the matter of bad editions — the louder the better — because if they don't, bad things can happen. Indeed, Moore scholars now face a serious danger. In October of 2003, Publishers Weekly forecast that Schulman's edition would "supplant Moore's 1967 collection for course assignments, making for steady sales over the long run" (79). Thankfully, this prediction has not yet come to pass, in part because Moore scholars have been reluctant to bring the book into the classroom. Penguin, however, is the publisher of both the Complete Poems [Clive Driver and Patricia C. Willis's "final authorial intention" edition] and Schulman's edition. Eager to boost sales of the Schulman edition, Penguin could well discontinue the Complete Poems of Marianne Moore. If that happens, scholars will literally have no reliable classroom edition of Moore's poems from which to work—a sad day indeed for Moore's literary reputation.

Similarly, Drucker argues, if we fail to value, support, and require the intellectual labor of designing tools for digital scholarship, we risk making all our work more difficult, or worse, conforming our work to tools designed to meet the entirely different demands of the corporate world. We're all familiar with something like this already, with Microsoft Word's (irritatingly persistent) defaults apparently set explicitly to baffle MLA or Chicago style.
Many humanities principles developed in hard-fought critical battles of the last decades are absent in the design of digital contexts. Here is a short list: the subjectivity of interpretation, theoretical conceptions of texts as events (not things), cross-cultural perspectives that reveal the ideological workings of power, recognition of the fundamentally social nature of knowledge production, an intersubjective, mediated model of knowledge as something constituted, not just transmitted. For too long, the digital humanities, the advanced research arm of humanistic scholarly dialogue with computational methods, has taken its rules and cues from digital exigencies.


Unless scholars in the humanities help design and model the environments in which they will work, they will not be able to use them. Tools developed for PlayStation and PowerPoint, Word, and Excel will be as appropriate to our intellectual labors as a Playskool workbench is to the chores of a real plumber.

I think Drucker and Schulze are both right about the need to value (and promote, and fund) the intellectual work that must go into making texts accessible. Both Drucker and Schulze seem to propose that the way to do it is for academic departments to take over some of this work, I think rightly. But what's difficult about that solution is that departments have fewer and fewer tenure-track/tenured faculty, and thus barely have the resources to cover their current undergraduate courses. In other words, these articles could be misinterpreted as a call to shift resources away from existing specialties toward the editing and dissemination of text, when really departments need to hire -- and be authorized to hire -- scholars who specialize in these areas.

* * * * *

Another addendum to recent posts: Marc Bousquet's response to Mark Taylor is excellent:
But sure, you’re right. The problem is that we need to end tenure. When we end tenure, the market will insure that these folks are paid fairly, that persons with Ph.D.’s will be able to work for those wages.

Oh, crap, wait. As anyone actually paying attention has observed, we’ve ALREADY ended tenure. With the overwhelming majority of faculty off the tenure track, and most of teaching work being done by them, by students, and professional staff, tenured appointments are basically the privilege of a) a retiring generation b) grant-getters and c) the candidate pool for administration.

How’s that working out? Well, gee, we’re graduating a very poor percentage of students. Various literacies are kinda low. We don’t have a racially diverse faculty, and women, especially women with children, are far more likely to have the low-paying low-status faculty jobs.

Nice! Let’s get more of that!


Jess Nevins said...

As a librarian, I predict that faculty input on the development of libraries would be met with sullen suspicion and even hostility--librarians being as territorial as any other group, and even more prone to feeling taken for granted and marginalized.

On the other hand, we certainly would like faculty input during course formulation and especially at the beginning of the semester. (i.e., let us know what you're teaching! Ask us to get together a lists of resources for your class! And don't assume we've got all the books you need for your class!)

skg said...

Jess: I think it depends on how the input is presented. I've no idea what percentage of colleges maintain such a thing, but some do have library advisory committees whose membership is mostly ladder-rank faculty. From what I've seen, it's their charge to make recommendations to library heads (as well as keep comm lines open, raise visibility, etc.), which is--usually--more orderly than ad hoc requests or untimely demands of a subject librarian.

Natalia: FWIW, librarians are not expected to take care of tech problems automagically, in my experience. Library staff are. I notice without rancor that the distinction is missing from Drucker's post, too. (Librarians have faculty appointments, generally speaking, whereas career staff are career staff.)

Natalia said...

Good point, Sharon. I often fail to make the distinction myself.

Jess, I think Drucker is trying to argue that library-related work shouldn't be marginalized, because it's central to research. It makes sense to me that this would involve faculty.